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The final showdown: 5 things to watch in last Trump-Biden debate

The mics may be cut but the gloves will be off when the candidates meet Thursday in Nashville, Tennessee.
Image: JOe Biden and President Donald Trump
Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

WASHINGTON — Any Americans still on the fence — and who haven't been among the hordes of early voters — will have one final chance to hear from President Donald Trump and Joe Biden in their last debate Thursday, during which the president will try to re-energize his base and close the polling gap behind Biden.

Thursday's debate in Nashville, Tennessee, was supposed to be the third faceoff of 2020, but will instead be the second of only two presidential debates after Trump declined to participate in one scheduled for last week after it was moved to a virtual format following his Covid-19 diagnosis.

Trump's polling deficit has only solidified since the poorly reviewed first debate in Cleveland and with more than 30 million votes already cast and, less than two weeks before Election Day, he is running out of time.

Here are five things to watch:

1. A new tone for Trump?

Sitting presidents often fumble the first debate of their re-election. After four years in the White House, they're not used to being challenged.

"Both (George W.) Bush and (Barack) Obama did poorly in their first debates and then found their footing in the second debates," Republican strategist Alex Conant said. "This next debate is just crucial for Trump if he's going to turn this around."

Polls showed voters thought Biden won the Cleveland clash, which was dominated by Trump's combative tone and frequent interruptions.

Some Trump allies are now hoping to see a different approach from him, which they've pitched to the president as giving Biden the room to mess up.

"They said if you let him talk, he'll lose his train of thought because he's gonzo. And I understand that," Trump said on Fox News on Tuesday. "There is a train of thought that, you know, there are a lot of people that say let him talk because he loses his train, he loses his train, he loses his mind, frankly."

Working in Trump's favor is that expectations for his performance could hardly be lower, so even a modicum more restraint, focus and substance are likely to receive positive reviews.

2. Biden's mission: Do no harm

If the polls are right, Biden doesn't have to win the debate — he just has to not lose it in an embarrassing way.

The faceoff less than two week before Nov. 3 is Biden's last foreseeable major hurdle to clear before Election Day and it's not a particularly high one. He doesn't need to destroy Trump. He doesn't need to win over vast swaths of undecided voters. He just needs to avoid making a big gaffe or doing anything that would raise voters' concerns about his age (77) or mental fitness.

Biden's team argues that anything that happens in the 90-minute debate will be quickly overshadowed by the country's daily struggles with the pandemic.

"There's nothing on the debate stage that's fundamentally going to change the race," a Biden adviser said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "After people turn off their TVs, they're still going to be living in a world defined by Donald Trump's failure on Covid-19."

3. Hunter and the laptop

Hunter Biden's overseas business dealings came up briefly in the first debate, when Biden seemed to grow emotional pushing back on Trump's attacks, but unfounded allegations that the former vice president used his office to help his son are likely to be a focus of the final debate.

Biden has barely addressed the mostly unconfirmed and disputed reporting on a laptop allegedly owned by Hunter, but the former vice president will have a hard time waving off the topic on stage with Trump.

Taking a page from his own 2016 playbook, Trump has taken to indulging "lock him up" chants at his campaign rallies while accusing Biden of being "corrupt" and saying his family is a "criminal enterprise."

"Joe Biden needs to answer this question, especially when they aren't refuting it and his own campaign says they do not doubt the authenticity of these emails," Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel said on Fox News.

The Biden campaign says the laptop could be part of a Russian disinformation campaign and denied a central claim of the reporting, that Biden met with a business associate on his son's behalf.

"Investigations by the press, during impeachment, and even by two Republican-led Senate committees whose work was decried as 'not legitimate' and political by a GOP colleague have all reached the same conclusion: that Joe Biden carried out official U.S. policy toward Ukraine and engaged in no wrongdoing," Biden spokesperson Andrew Bates said in a statement.

4. Is this thing on?

There will be a lot less interruption this time because each candidate's microphone will be cut off during the 2 minutes of time the other candidate is entitled to at the start of each 15-minute segment. The other 10 minutes or so of each section will be free-range.

"If you watched the first debate, easy to see that those rules were not followed even though they'd agreed to it," Frank Fahrenkopf, who co-chairs the Commission on Presidential Debates, said on MSNBC. "So, all the commission has done is not create a new rule, we didn't touch the rules, all we did was put in a situation where if someone is interrupting, they won't be allowed to interrupt."

That doesn't mean, of course, that the other candidate can't talk when they're not supposed to, just that whatever they say won't be broadcast to viewers at home. Trump lambasted the change, but some Democrats are already fretting the president will hack the new rule by distracting Biden on stage as he speaks.

5. Peaceful transition?

Four years ago, down in the polls in his final debate with Hillary Clinton, Trump stunned observers by refusing to say if he would accept the results of the election if he lost.

"I will tell you at the time. I will keep you in suspense," Trump said. Clinton shot back, "That's horrifying. That is not the way our democracy works."

Those concerns became moot after Trump won. But he's now making similar statements, again raising concerns, and this time he's the incumbent, with all the powers that come with the office. And Trump's been reluctant to denounce white supremacists and far-right extremist groups who say they're spoiling for a fight in the event of a disputed election.

The debate will be one of the last chances for Biden to press Trump on the issue and for the president to explain his position, which could either defuse tensions or turn up the heat and provoke more conflict and potentially even violence.